The Babylonian Empire was the greatest power in the world of its day, and its king, Nebuchadnezzar, had no equal. But the great king had not been sleeping well. Whenever he tried to go to sleep troubling thoughts from a recent dream flooded his mind and he was terrified. He tried to get help from his magicians, astrologers, and diviners, but to no avail.
Finally he turned to Daniel, remembering that it was Daniel who had helped him with a frightening dream earlier in his reign. He carefully described his nightmare. It was about a huge tree that grew to the sky and continued to provide food and shelter for all until suddenly a holy messenger from Heaven declared that the tree would be cut down. The messenger added,
This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest men (Daniel 4:17).
Whatever dramatic event that dream anticipated, its purpose would be to convince the inhabitants of the earth that the Most High God rules the affairs of men. We call that great truth the sovereignty of God. It was essential that Nebuchadnezzar understand it, so important, in fact, that God let him lose his mind, grovel in the fields like an animal, and eat grass like an ox until he was willing to admit it. And he finally did. After recuperating from his ordeal, he praised and honored the Most High God who lives forever, and said:
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, What hast Thou done? (Daniel 4:34-35)
That is one of the clearest statements of God’s sovereignty found anywhere in the Bible. Nebuchadnezzar learned the doctrine well and it is just as important for us to understand it.
The dictionaries tell us that sovereign means chief or highest, supreme in power, superior in position, independent of and unlimited by anyone else. Some theologians insist that sovereignty is not technically an attribute of God, but rather a prerogative that issues from the perfections of His nature. That makes little difference. We still need to know Him as the sovereign God, and there is probably no more comforting truth about Him that we will ever learn. To know the sovereign God is to find peace in the problems and pressures of daily living.
God is truly and perfectly sovereign. That means He is the highest and greatest being there is, He controls everything, His will is absolute, and He does whatever He pleases. When we hear that stated, we can understand it reasonably well, and we can usually handle it until God allows something that we do not like. Then our normal reaction is to resist the doctrine of His sovereignty. Rather than finding comfort in it, we find that it gets us upset with God. If He can do whatever He pleases, why does He allow us to suffer? Our problem is a misunderstanding of the doctrine and an inadequate knowledge of God. If we can explore what sovereignty involves, then we can truly get to know our sovereign God.
It should not be any problem for us to admit that God is the highest and greatest being there is. If He is the eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, unchanging Spirit, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere, it is obvious that He stands alone, above all. No one can equal Him. If anyone existed before Him or is more powerful than He is or knows more than He knows, if He needs anyone else to complete Him, then that one would be God rather than the One we know as God. But that idea is ridiculous. There is only one true and living God, and in order for Him to be God He must be the highest and greatest. The very name by which he revealed Himself to Nebuchadnezzar shows that He is. He called Himself the Most High God, that is, the exalted One, lifted far above all gods and men.
Other passages concur. Isaiah said:
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel And his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 44:6).
The writer to the Hebrews put it succinctly: “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13). Who else could He call on to establish that solemn oath? He is the greatest and highest being there is (cf. also Exodus 18:11; Deuteronomy 4:39; Psalm 95:3; 135:5; Isaiah 40:12-15,18,22,25; 45:5; 1 Timothy 6:15).
This still may not convince us that God can do anything He pleases. We then need to go back to the beginning of God’s creative activity. If God made everything and sustains everything by His power, then He obviously owns everything and has a right to rule what is His and do what He pleases with it. Did He make everything? There is no question about that. Speaking of God the Son, Paul said, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). Not only did He create all things, but He created them for Himself, for His own glory. Solomon went so far as to say, “The LORD hath made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4 KJV). That sounds rather shocking at first. But we need to realize that He did not cause them to be wicked. He made them, they subsequently practiced evil of their own volition, yet somehow He is going to use them to fulfill His own eternal purposes.
Furthermore, what He made for Himself He is presently holding together. Paul went on to say, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). God the Son keeps the particles of the universe from flying apart. All things cohere in Him.
If God created everything and now takes the necessary steps to make it all stick together, He must consider it all to be His. That is exactly what Scripture teaches. In a great prayer of thanksgiving King David declared, “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV). To this, all Scripture agrees. For example, “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1 KJV; cf. also Genesis 14:19; Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 50:10-12).
If God made everything and owns everything, then He has the right to rule everything. That is what He taught Nebuchadnezzar during his harrowing experience (Daniel 4:17,25,34-35). Actually, David had said it years before. In that same prayer of thanksgiving he went on to declare, “Thou dost rule over all” (1 Chronicles 29:12). Passages in both the Old and New Testaments verify this truth. For example, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19 NIV). “He rules by His might forever” (Psalm 66:7). “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Revelation 19:6 KJV). His omnipotence provides the strength to do what His sovereignty gives Him the right to do. Nothing is outside the scope of His sovereignty—absolutely nothing.
A godly king named Jehoshaphat found great encouragement in knowing the sovereign God of the universe who rules everything, when he faced a fearsome coalition of invading enemy armies. “Then Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD before the new court, and he said, ‘O LORD, the God of our fathers, art Thou not God in the heavens? And art Thou not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Thy hand so that no one can stand against Thee’” (2 Chronicles 20:5-6). God proved that He ruled the nations by giving Jehoshaphat and his people a miraculous victory that day. When trials invade our lives, we too can find great comfort in knowing the God who rules everything. He loves to give His people victory (cf. also Psalm 47:2-3,7-8; Psalm 93:1-2; Proverbs 21:1; Matthew 28:18; Acts 17:26; Revelation 19:6).
Since God is infinite, His sovereignty must be absolute. His rule must involve total control of everything in His domain—every circumstance, every situation, every event. God claims responsibility for establishing and removing human rulers, however acceptable or unacceptable we may consider them to be (Daniel 2:20–21). The Psalmist said that God controls the weather (Psalm 147:16-18; 148:8). Sometimes we don’t like it, but we learn to accept it from the One who rules everything.
He even holds the life of every creature in His hand (Job 12:10). Everyone in my family is convinced that God led a collie named Levi to our door. His name was engraved on the tag hanging around his neck when he arrived. Can you imagine a dog named Levi finding the Strauss house? Our youngest son had been praying for a dog for nearly three years, but we had laid down some stringent requirements. He had to be housebroken. He had to be obedient. And he had to be a gentle, people-dog in order to live in a pastor’s home where visitors come and go regularly.
When my wife returned the dog to its owner, whose address was also engraved on the tag, she said kiddingly, “If you ever want to get rid of this dog, please let us know.” The surprising reply was, “I do. I’m looking for a good home for him right now.” My wife asked if we could think about it overnight. To our delight, Levi got out of his house and found his way to our residence again the next morning. This time we decided he could stay. When the owner brought us his papers, we learned that he had been conceived at the approximate time our son began to pray for a dog, that he was born on my wife’s birthday, and that he was an honor graduate of obedience school. No one will ever convince us that Levi’s coming was anything other than the gracious work of our sovereign God. Incidentally, he did meet the other require meets as well.
God’s sovereignty means that He either directly causes or consciously permits everything that happens in human history. Paul said to the Romans, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36). He taught the Ephesians that God works “all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
We may be shocked to learn that God even admits to causing adversity and calamity.
The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these (Isaiah 45:7).
Think of that. God may on occasion purposely build problems into our lives, little problems like the flat tire on a deserted road, or big problems like the undiagnosed illness that lingers on interminably and disrupts our lives. While on other occasions He may merely allow events to take their normal course, it is obvious that He controls every circumstance in our lives (Proverbs 16:33; Lamentations 3:37-38).
It looks as though we have reached the summit of God’s sovereignty. He has the right to do anything He pleases. Through the prophet Isaiah, He boldly declared:
Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
The Psalmist agreed.
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:6).
That was the lesson Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way, as did a suffering believer named Job. He was sitting on an ash heap feeling sorry for himself, bearing excruciating pain, enduring intense grief over the loss of his family and all his material goods, blaming God for being unfair, when God began to reveal Himself in His sovereign power and glory. Getting to know a sovereign God caused Job’s problems to pale by comparison. He was able to relax when he finally concluded,
I know that Thou canst do all things,
And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted (Job 42:2).
Jesus taught the same lesson to His disciples by means of a parable, the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Some were hired very early in the morning, others at various times throughout the day. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman to call them together and pay them all the same amount. Those who had worked through the heat of the day grumbled because they received only the same as those who were hired shortly before quitting time. The landowner replied, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” (Matthew 20:15) That landowner pictures God. He has a right to do as He pleases with what is His, without asking permission from anyone. Isaiah warned years before, “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker” (Isaiah 45:9).
The Apostle Paul took up the same theme: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?” (Romans 9:18-21) If God is sovereign, then we have no right to argue with Him about what He allows to happen to us (cf. also Job 23:13; 33:12-13; Jeremiah 27:5).
By this time some are probably saying, “Where is the comfort in all of this? If God controls everything, why does He allow human tragedy and pain?” It is important to understand that, while God controls everything, He does not manipulate people like puppets on a string or program them like computerized robots. He gives them the freedom to make decisions and He holds them responsible for their choices. All human suffering is ultimately linked in some way to man’s volition. But just as God’s omniscience assures us that He knew what man’s choices would be, so His sovereignty assures us that He consciously allowed those choices as the best possible means of displaying His own glory, that He has complete control of them at every moment, and that He will overrule them to accomplish His own perfect purposes. The Psalmist made that last point clear when he said, “For the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10). He can even use man’s belligerent opposition against Him to bring praise to Himself.
The Bible is filled with illustrations. For example, God overruled the evil designs of Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into slavery. He used that painful experience in Joseph’s life to keep Jacob’s family alive through a devastating famine so that the line through which the Messiah was to come could be preserved. When Joseph was reunited with his brothers many years later, he said, “And as for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
God also overruled the murderous designs of the Jewish religious leaders who plotted the death of His Son, by laying on Him the guilt and penalty of the world’s sins and so providing forgiveness for the human race. He overruled the persecution suffered by the early Church in Jerusalem and used it to spread the gospel to places it might never have gone otherwise (Acts 8:1-4). He causes man’s actions to serve His own purposes.
His purposes are always perfect. David assured us that God never makes mistakes. “As for God, His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30 KJV). Jeremiah, through a letter to the discouraged Jewish captives in Babylon, revealed that God has our well being at heart in all His aims and goals. “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). We cannot always understand how His actions will work out perfectly for our welfare, but He does not expect us to understand. He just wants us to trust Him. What seems like calamity will work for the best.
Abraham did not always understand God’s purposes, yet he trusted Him. When God told him He was about to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham feared for the lives of his nephew Lot and family, so he pleaded with God to spare the city. But behind his request was a settled assurance that God would do what was best: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25 KJV) He trusted God to do what was best.
Yes, God does have the right to do with us anything He pleases because we belong to Him, and we have no right to argue. He controls all our circumstances, and as bleak as they may appear to us, He is already at work to use every one of them for the accomplishment of His good ends. No circumstance is excepted. David said, “My times are in Thy hand” (Psalm 31:15). He was referring to all the situations and circumstances of daily living. They are all of God’s appointment.
The steps of a man are established by the LORD;
And He delights in his way (Psalm 37:23).
The course of life, all that befalls a believer, is established, fixed, and settled by the Lord. Things may be out of our control, but God has them in His total control at every moment (cf. also Proverbs 20:24; Ecclesiastes 9:1). And He always does what is best. “Trust Me,” He says. “There is no reason to worry, fret, complain, or argue. Just trust Me to accomplish My own perfect purposes.”
One of His purposes is to teach us important lessons that He wants us to learn. He allows trials as tools to bring us to maturity and completeness in Him (cf. James 1:2-4). Rather than asking, “Lord, why did this have to happen to me?” it might be advantageous to ask, “Lord, what Christlike quality of spiritual maturity do you want to build into my life through this experience?”
There is something to be learned in every situation. For example, when someone is unloving to us we can learn what it means to love unselfishly and unconditionally. When someone hurts us deeply we can learn to forgive. When we are experiencing conflict with someone in authority over us we can learn to cultivate a submissive spirit. When we face financial difficulties we can learn to be good stewards. When temptations entice us we can learn to claim God’s power to overcome them. When we become bored and discouraged with our lot in life we can learn to be faithful. When we suffer an extended illness we can learn to rejoice in the Lord. When we lose a precious loved one we can learn to find our satisfaction in the Lord alone.
God may be allowing some tragedy to invade your life right now. As an omniscient God, He knows about it. As an omnipotent God, He could have stepped in supernaturally and changed that circumstance and so protected you from it. But He did not do that. Instead, He allowed it to remain. So we must conclude that He wants it to be there and that He has some perfect purpose to accomplish through it. Trust Him to fulfill that purpose.
A godly woman in my first pastorate taught me the application of God’s sovereignty to human experience. She was in the hospital dying of cancer, suffering great pain, but still mustering the strength to read her Bible every day. She was eagerly anticipating my visit one particular day because she wanted to tell me what God had shown her that morning. She asked me to open my Bible to Psalm 119 and to read verses 67 and 68. I read aloud,
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word.
Thou art good and doest good; Teach me Thy statutes.”
“Now read verse 71,” she said. So I read again,
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Thy statutes.”
“And one more,” she added. “Read verse 75.” I continued,
“I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous,
And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me.”
When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled.
“You know, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world,” she said. “I’m right where God wants me to be, and it’s good.”
That is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty put into practice. The bottom line is yieldedness to His sovereign will. He has a right to do with us as He pleases. He can allow our best-laid vacation plans to fall through at the last minute if He so chooses. He can let the boss blame us for somebody else’s mistake if He so chooses. He can let the bride get the measles on the day before the wedding if He so chooses. He can let our whole world fall apart around us if He so chooses. We can react in one of two ways. We can resist Him, grumble, complain, accuse Him of being unfair or unkind, and end up with a tension headache, a knot in the pit of the stomach, and possibly an ulcer or a heart attack. Or we can believe that He will use our circumstances to fulfill His perfect purposes, then willingly yield to His sovereign will and find inner peace and rest. The choice is ours.
Think of something in your life at the present time that disturbs you deeply, over which you have no control. Now consciously bow to God’s sovereignty in that area of your life and ask Him what Christlike qualities He wants to build into your life through that situation.